It’s all over for Don Mattrick at FarmVille publisher Zynga.
The company announced today that its chief executive officer for nearly the last two years is leaving. Cofounder and former chief executive officer Mark Pincus is stepping back into the top role. This comes as Zynga, once the biggest name in all of social gaming, continues to struggle on mobile platforms, and that’s one of the big reasons that the publisher’s leadership isn’t shedding any tears about Mattrick’s exit. Worldwide revenues for gaming on iOS and Android could hit $30 billion this year, predicts market research firm Newzoo, and that’s money that Zynga just can’t find a way to grab.
In July 2013, Zynga appointed Mattrick as its CEO. The new leader came fresh from his gig as the head of the Xbox gaming group at Microsoft. At that job, he is widely seen as helping to guide the Xbox 360 to huge success. But many also blame him for designing the disastrous early strategy for the Xbox One that included strict digital-rights management and a mandatory online connection. Microsoft reversed those choices before launching the Xbox One as Mattrick was leaving.
Wall Street investors welcomed the news that Mattrick was taking over Zynga. He had built up a reputation for knowing how to guide a large game-focused organization, and Pincus had failed for months (going on years) to transition his teams from social to mobile.
So Mattrick took over and started implementing his ideas. Now, less than 24 months later, he’s done. And it makes sense.
Zynga still hasn’t found success on mobile
Mattrick talked a big game early on. One of his first things he discussed publicly as the CEO of Zynga was his 90-day plan to reshape the publisher into a leaner operation. This included working more closely with the developers. As an example of his dedication, Mattrick set up his desk in the middle of the FarmVille team’s office.
Of course, Mattrick also streamlined Zynga in more traditional ways: In January 2014, he laid off 314 employees. He slowly replaced much of the top executives with people of his own choosing. And in April 2014, Mattrick had Pincus completely give up his day-to-day involvement in Zynga and his chief product officer role.
But while Mattrick had the freedom to make these tough decisions, it came with an understanding that he would also deliver improved performance on mobile and higher revenues. At this point, the best you can really say is that the Mattrick era stabilized Zynga’s earnings.
But it is not a mobile powerhouse. Not even close.
“Zynga has seen its stock price fall from $10 a share when it went public in December 2011 to under $3 a share now,” VB Insight analyst Stewart Rogers wrote in a recent report. “Ever since Mattrick took over the reins, people have been looking for the next hit; a sign that its 2,000 staff are working on a new, bona fide hit. A new hit hasn’t been forthcoming, and existing cash cows, like FarmVille, have become a thorn in the side of many users. VB Insight’s own Digital Pitchforks study showed that the vast majority of Facebook-oriented customer service complaints — by far the most complained-about brand — weren’t about the social network but were attributed to unhappy Zynga users.”
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In March 2014, Zynga unleashed FarmVille 2: Country Escape for iOS and Android with the hope that it would act as its return to glory. But this game did not meet those expectations.
Country Escape is 87th highest-grossing iPhone game in the United States as of today, according to tracking firm App Annie. On a daily basis, it’s making around $24,000 a day, according to intelligence firm ThinkGaming. That’s well behind something like developer Supercell’s Clash of Clans, which is making around $1.7 million every day.
While Zynga didn’t necessarily need FarmVille to reach Clash of Clans’ level of success, it definitely needed a sustained top-10 hit. And FarmVille, its biggest brand, failed to deliver that.
Since FarmVille, Mattrick’s focus was on branching out into new genres.
The company has released (or is testing) a number of new mobile games. These include a Candy Crush Saga clone called FarmVille: Harvest Swap, which debuted in Switzerland, Singapore, and Philippines in January. The company has not done much with it since. It also moved into Slots to followup on its popular Poker game. Wizard of Oz Slots is doing OK as the No. 33 highest-grossing game on iPhone.
Zynga also tried to move beyond the casual category with its Empires & Allies game that it released in test markets last month. NFL Showdown: Football Manager hasn’t made much of a dent since its release in September.
But despite all of these efforts, nothing has really caught on for Zynga. And its earnings are roughly flat.
In November, Zynga reported bookings of $175 million for its most recent quarter at that time. That was up only slightly from $152 million during the same period from the previous year. And Zynga doesn’t look like it will break out of that earnings range any time soon.
Mattrick’s huge blunder
While FarmVille is probably the most recognizable Zynga brand, it isn’t the company’s most important game anymore. That title goes to Zynga Poker.
Zynga Poker on Facebook and mobile makes more money for the publisher than any of its other games, as players pay real money to purchase in-game digital chips that have no real-world value. It represents more than a quarter of Zynga’s total revenue.
But in March 2014, Zynga launched a major update to Poker that changed the look of the game to make it appear more elegant. The developer said it wanted to give players something that was more like a real casino.
And people hated it.
By November, Zynga admitted it had made a mistake, and it rolled out a separate Zynga Poker Classic to placate fans. But it looks like the damage is already done. Now, no version of the Zynga Poker app ranks in the top 100 highest-grossing list on iPhone or iPad. Of everything that happened under Mattrick at Zynga, this was likely the worst.
The big bets still haven’t paid off
Finally, Mattrick’s investment in NaturalMotion hasn’t turned into anything concrete yet.
In January 2014, Mattrick spearheaded a deal to acquire the technology company and software developer NaturalMotion for $527 million. It’s best known for producing the CSR mobile racing games, where players only control the shifting of a car that they can improve with in-app purchases. But it also creates software that enables any developer to quickly add physics into their game. Most notably, NaturalMotion’s tech enabled the characters in Grand Theft Auto IV to fall over in realistic ways.
Spending half of a billion dollars on a company is the kind of thing that needs to produce results, and we’ve illustrated earlier, that didn’t happen under Zynga. If NaturalMotion’s technology went into other games from the publisher, it didn’t help them perform any better.
Back to Pincus
While all of the above is evidence that Mattrick hadn’t delivered on his early promises, Zynga probably won’t have it any easier under Pincus. Wall Street originally loved when Mattrick took over, and it’s probably not going to like the company going back to Pincus.
“This is not good,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter told GamesBeat. “I am a Mattrick fan, but Pincus is impatient and has voting control.”
The reasons that Zynga brought in Mattrick to replace Pincus in the first place still stand. Pincus couldn’t transition the company into mobile, and many will likely argue that Mattrick didn’t have enough time to see his policies through.